Eighteen years ago, three teenaged boys were accused of murdering three 8-year-old boys. These three teens were suspected because they were weird. The way they dressed and what they believed were not the norm for the Arkansas town of West Memphis. And when the bodies of three young children were found mutilated and hogtied, the police and prosecutors were convinced it was the work of a Satanic cult. Police suspected then-18-year-old Damien Echols, a goth kid who wore all black and called himself a Wiccan. After an interrogation lasting some 12 hours, police got Echols’ friend, then-17-year-old Jessie Misskelley, Jr., to confess and implicate both Echols and 16-year-old Jason Baldwin. Never mind that the specifics of his confession did not match the evidence collected from the crime scene. The state was convinced it had apprehended the murderers. The teens were arrested and became known as the West Memphis Three.
Not much later, Misskelley recanted. The trial judge decided, based on the circumstances under which he confessed, that Misskelley’s confession could not be admitted as proof of their guilt at trial. So the West Memphis Three were tried for murder. There was no reliable confession. There was no physical evidence that tied them to the crime scene. No forensic evidence was discovered that linked them either. The state’s proof was statements of people who said that they heard or overheard the three teens discussing the murders. That was it. That and the certainty of the police and prosecutors that they were right. The West Memphis Three were convicted. Echols was sentenced to death, Misskelley and Baldwin to life.
During the long appellate process, many began to doubt that Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin were guilty. Family members of two of the victims had doubts as well. A jury member came forward to admit inappropriate jury behavior–considering information about the crime that was not submitted into evidence. Then, in 2007, DNA testing showed that no DNA from Echols, Misskelley or Baldwin was at the crime scene. Even more curious, DNA from the step-father of one of the murdered children was there. Despite this new DNA evidence, despite the fact that the mother of one of the witnesses has publicly questioned her daughter’s veracity in this case, and despite the fact that the victim’s family members have doubts, the prosecuting attorney insists that the state was right. In his mind, their “guilt or innocence was never on the table.” (Read prosecuting attorney Scott Ellington’s full statement reprinted in the Arkansas Times blog.)
Never on the table? Never? It seems that very shortly after surveying the crime scene, the state had established its theory of the case. Based on the manner of the murder, the state was sure this was a Satanic killing. So the state didn’t pursue any other avenue of investigation. And nearly two decades later, in the face of new evidence developed through improved forensic science, the state refuses to reconsider its theory. Refuses to consider any other possible suspect.
So, what happens when guilt or innocence is never on the table? There is a rush to judgment. Investigators decide on a scenario of events and exclude other avenues. Prosecutors are so convinced in the infallibility of their judgment that, even in the face of new evidence, they cannot admit that an innocent person may have been convicted. And we have tens of thousands of wrongfully convicted people in prison.
For more information on the West Memphis Three, click here.
Check out a related post over at Grits for Breakfast.